The fundamental condition for any ethical theory is a conception of man as an agent able to act, consciously and freely, towards an end. Socrates’s understanding of ethical actions, widely shared by Plato, was firmly linked to the concept of rationality and knowledge: in his mind, the knowledge of what was good was a sufficient condition to motivate good actions. Aristotle was dissatisfied with this idea, which he thought to convey a simplistic and too “intellectualistic” picture of human actions and decisions. The aim of his ethical investigation was then to propose a theory of human action, deliberation and practical reasoning less theoretical and much closer to the way human beings really take decisions and act.
Why do we act, what motivates our choices, how is our reason involved in our decision-taking processes are then the questions Aristotle addressed in Nicomachean Ethics, especially in books three and six. In these pages, the philosopher introduced his theory of deliberation (prohairesis): a process – linked both to man’s practical reason (phronesis) and to his desires – which takes the agent from the evaluation of a certain empirical situation to the decision of the right thing to do, passing through the rational balancing of the benefits and costs of different alternative actions, and eventually to the action itself.
This theory has many interesting consequences both at the level of individual agents and the understanding of their use of reason in action-taking, as well as at the level of social decision-making and public rationality, topic which had a considerable role in Nicomachean Ethics.